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Why Do We Keep Talking About Reconciliation?

One of my favorite parts of the weekly worship service is what is commonly known as the passing of the peace. This is the part of the service where many of us regress inwardly to the spiritual state of a 3-year-old, groaning inside with an attitude of, “Awww, do I have to?” But second to the coming to the Lord’s Table together, this portion of the worship service serves as a deep comfort to my soul. Why? Because it is a physical act which is based on a deeply spiritual reality: Christians have been definitively reconciled to each other through Christ.

Whenever I have the privilege of leading this portion of the worship service, I will often say something along the lines of, “God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and he has also reconciled us to one another. So, let’s take a moment to greet one another with the peace of Christ…” Some weeks those words feel hollow, and I’m sure they can feel fake to those who hear them. After all, while we might know intellectually that we are supposed to be reconciled to one another, our lived experience is often entirely different. Marriages and friendships within the church are strained; the challenges of the week cause us to distance ourselves from other church members; despite attending a church with others for years, we’ve hardly put forth the effort to get to know them.

Reconciled? Yeah right. How is this bitter, distant, conflicted group of people reconciled?

The topic of reconciliation has been a hot-button issue for Christians for the last several years. In light of the racial injustices being brought to light, often by camera on viral social media, it has become increasingly clear that there is still a great need for racial reconciliation to take place, especially across divides in the white and black communities.

Unfortunately, Christians are not all agreed on the need for this work to be done, nor are they agreed on how to go about accomplishing this work. While many Christians and church leaders are trying to champion the cause of racial reconciliation, others look at this issue as a real threat to the church. Some Christians accuse those who speak up about racial issues as “Woke”, “Marxist”, “Social Justice Warriors (SJW)”. Others say that talking about racial issues takes away from the gospel, and we just need to get back to “preaching the gospel.” Still others accuse those Christians who care about racial reconciliation as having been swept away by secular ideologies.

The purpose of this post is not to respond to all of those accusations, nor is it to change the minds of anyone who hold such strong views. The purpose of this post is to help those whose hearts are broken over matters of racial injustice (especially my white brothers and sisters) gain a better grasp of the theology of reconciliation from a biblical perspective and show why it’s so important for us to be talking about today.

To do that, I want to draw a theological analogy from what the Bible says about sanctification and then connect that to how we can understand the Bible’s teaching on reconciliation.

Sanctification

What is sanctification? The Westminster Shorter Catechism says this:

Sanctification is the work of God’ s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. (Question 35)

The idea is not so much that sin is totally eradicated in a believer, but instead of a spiritually powered character change in the deepest recesses of our hearts. Through sanctification, the Christian is freed from the power of sin and is empowered to pursue true godliness and Christlikeness in our thoughts, desires, words, and actions.

There are two ways the Bible communicates our sanctification to us, both as a definitive work and a progressive reality. We need to understand both aspects of sanctification if we are going to have a grasp on the power of God at work in us.

When we speak of our definitive sanctification, we are referring to a deeply spiritual but very real one-time act by God in the life of the Christian. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addresses the believers in Corinth as those who were “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Later in this same letter, he tied this one-time work of sanctification to the one-time work of justification when he wrote, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Just as believers are justified at one point in time, we are also sanctified at one point in time as well.

This definitive aspect of sanctification is explained most clearly in Romans 6. Here the Apostle Paul said that we have died to sin (Romans 6:2), having been baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3-4). John Murray explains that having died to sin, believers have now made “a definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns.” He goes on,

This means that there is a decisive and definitive breach with the power and service of sin in the case of everyone who has come under the control of the provisions of grace. (Collected Writings, 2:290)

Sinclair Ferguson explains this definitive aspect of sanctification when he says,

This is what ‘sanctification’ means: God has put his ‘reserved’ sign on something – temple vessels for example – or on someone who thereby becomes a ‘saint’, a person reserved for the Lord. He marks us out for his personal possession and use. We belong to him – and to nobody else, not even ourselves. We become devoted to God. (Devoted to God, 11).

This is good news! We no longer belong to the domain of sin and darkness, but we have now been set apart. We belong to God, and our hearts are now tuned to becoming more and more like him. John Owen beautifully said that God not only accepts us, but he also makes us lovely (Communion with God, 129). Christians should view each other as those who are genuinely new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

This is good news! We no longer belong to the domain of sin and darkness, but we have now been set apart. We belong to God, and our hearts are now tuned to becoming more and more like him.

However, while the Bible does teach us that Christians have been definitively sanctified and are no longer under the dominion of sin, sin is still present in the life of a Christian. This is something that the honest Christian sadly knows all too well. The Apostle James wrote, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and the Apostle John taught us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Anthony Hoekema summarizes the issue:

The conclusion is inevitable: because sin continues to be present in those who are in Christ, the sanctification of believers must be a continuing process. (Saved by Grace, 207).

The New Testament describes progressive sanctification both negatively and positively, that is, we must both put to death sinful practices and pursue the growth of our new self. Paul said in Romans 8:13, “…but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” Elsewhere he commands us to “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). The putting to death of sinful desires and practices involves the lifelong effort of the Christian.

But we do not only put sin to death, we also pursue the growth of our new selves. Paul continued in Colossians 3, “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Progressive sanctification is also described as a very real “transformation” (2 Corinthians 3:18), where we more and more reflect the person of Christ in our very being.

The putting to death of sinful desires and practices involves the lifelong effort of the Christian.

What does this mean for the Christian? This means that sanctification is both a definitive work that has been done to us by God, and a progressive work which he is still bringing about in us. The command of Scripture is to submit to God’s work in us and be active in this work of sanctification. As Paul said in Phillipians, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Herman Ridderbos said it this way,

Because God works and has worked, therefore man must and can work. (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 255).

When a Christian knows that they have not only been set free from the power of sin, but also have the power of God at work in them to pursue real holiness, then they are strengthened in their own ongoing fight against sin. We must be willing to pursue whatever godly means necessary to better understand the extent of our sin and how best to fight back against it.

In our struggles against pornography, we readily study statistics on its devastating consequences, analyze causes as to why men and women turn to pornography, and talk about it in churches as an ongoing fight for purity and holiness.

In matters of personal piety (such as Bible reading and prayer) we readily study those distractions in our culture which pull us away from these spiritual disciplines. We talk about these issues often in Sunday School classes and Sermons to better understand the sins and distractions of our hearts.

In matters of relational sin, such as anger, or various forms of abuse, we readily glean insights from experts – Christian or not – to better understand our sinful habits and how we might genuinely change.

We must be willing to pursue whatever godly means necessary to better understand the extent of our sin and how best to fight back against it.

When we truly see the horrific extent of our ongoing sin, we will do whatever we can to fight it and get rid of it.

Now, how does all of this relate to our theology of reconciliation, especially racial reconciliation in our church and society today?

Reconciliation

“God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and he has also reconciled us to one another.” What does this mean?

Ephesians 2 is one of the most amazing chapters in the New Testament, as it powerfully teaches us what Christ’s work has accomplished for us. Not only have we as individuals been saved from our sins (Ephesians 2:1-10), but we have been saved together into one new family (Ephesians 2:11-11). Through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13) all have been brought near to God together. Christ has become our peace, he has broken down any dividing wall of hostility that existed between God and man, or man and man (Ephesians 2:14-16). As a result, Christians are now fellow citizens and member of the same household together (Ephesians 2:19).

Not only have we as individuals been saved from our sins, but we have been saved together into one new family.

When reconciliation occurs, two parties who were formerly hostile to one another are brought into peaceful relations. Any hope for reconciliation begins first with our having been reconciled to God. Although we were formerly enemies of God and objects of his wrath, we have been reconciled to God (Romans 5:11). No longer enemies, we are God’s friends (John 15:13-15).

This work of reconciliation has a direct impact on our relationships with other Christians. Through Christ, we have also been reconciled to one another. Christ has reconciled us to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18) and has entrusted us with this message and ministry of reconciliation. Through us, as his ambassadors, God is reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The world will know the truthfulness of our message by this new love we have for one another (John 13:35).

Again, this is good news! On a very real level, Christians have been reconciled to God and to one another. Peace has been accomplished. It’s not our job to create peace, it already exists! This is the foundation we need. This new reality is what gives the church its power to fight for peace in the world. This is why the Christian civil rights activist John Perkins has said:

There is no institution on earth more equipped and capable of bringing transformation to the cause of reconciliation than the Church. (One Blood, 63)

On a very real level, Christians have been reconciled to God and to one another. Peace has been accomplished. It’s not our job to create peace, it already exists!

In light of our exploration of sanctification above, it would be appropriate to call this aspect of reconciliation definitive reconciliation. It has happened. It is real. We are freed from the power of sinful hostility in our relationships.

But sin remains at work in us. Not just individually, but relationally and corporately. While this work of reconciliation is a new reality for us, we often do not live as if it were so. Knowing that we would continue to sin against one another, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the importance of forgiving one another (Matthew 18:21-22, Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32) and striving for peace with one another (Romans 14:19, Hebrews 12:14). There is a definitive aspect to our reconciliation, but there is also need for progressive reconciliation as we apply Christ’s work to our relationships with others. Donald Macleod explains:

Where are we to begin the road to recovery? By realizing that whatever the wrong committed against us by fellow believers, all has been dealt with at the cross. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not then matters of mere indulgent forbearance. They are matters of theological rigor. God is at peace with ‘them’ through the blood of the cross. They are my Father’s friends. They must be my friends. (Christ Crucified, 164)

One of the more tragic examples of getting this theology wrong comes in Galatians 2. The Apostle Paul tells us of a time when the Apostle Peter got this very wrong. Keep in mind that Peter had lived alongside the Great Reconciler for nearly 3 years. He was supposed to be the rock among the other apostles. He had brilliant theology – even a theology of reconciliation – as was displayed in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2).

Yet…his life didn’t reflect his theology. When it didn’t cost him anything, he was willing to freely eat and associate with Gentiles. But when the Judaizers (those who still wanted to keep separate from the Gentiles) came around, he drew back in fear (Galatians 2:12). It is for this reason that Paul said Peter stood condemned (Galatians 2:11). His actions, along with the rest of the Jewish believers, were complete hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13). As a result, Paul said, their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14).

Progressive reconciliation, then, is modeling our life so that we more and more keep in step with the truth of the gospel in all that we do – not just in our private lives, but even in our relationships.

Having examined these subjects of sanctification and reconciliation in close detail, let’s connect the dots and draw out some application for our understanding of the need to engage in racial reconciliation today.

Why Do We Keep Talking About Reconciliation?

Reconciliation, like our sanctification, has both a definitive and progressive aspect. Christ has done a definitive work in us as individuals, but also as a group. Through Christ, we now belong to one another. Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with each other for all of eternity.

Perhaps another way to say this is that our progressive reconciliation is really our corporate sanctification. John Murray connected these two ideas when he said:

This progression (of sanctification) has respect, not only to the individual, but also to the church in its unity and solidarity as the body of Christ. In reality the growth of the individual does not take place except in the fellowship of the church as the fellowship of the Spirit. Believers have never existed as independent units. In God’s eternal counsel they were chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:14); in the accomplishment of their redemption they were in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Ephesians 1:17); in the application of redemption they are ushered into the fellowship of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9). And sanctification itself is a process that moves to a consummation which will not be realized for the individual until the whole body of Christ is complete and presented in its totality faultless and without blemish. This points up the necessity of cultivating and promoting the sanctification of the whole body, and the practical implications for responsibility, privilege, and opportunity become apparent. (Collected Writings, 2: Chapter 24)

Regarding sanctification, I have never heard a Christian argue with the need for progressive sanctification. Whether or not we know the full extent of our sin (after all, our hearts are deceptive), the basis for being a Christian is acknowledging our sin in God’s sight. We acknowledge our need for change, and desire for God to continue to do a work in us.

Why, then, do we so quickly protest or resist our need for corporate sanctification and progressive reconciliation? Why do we so quickly reject cries for justice on a social level as some conspiracy of “the left”? Even Peter got this wrong! Do we really think we’re any better?

Why, then, do we so quickly protest or resist our need for corporate sanctification and progressive reconciliation?

The dark, sinful reality is that American Christians (particularly, white American Christians) have been walking out of step with the gospel in matters of racial injustice for centuries. While there have been attempts to apologize for past sins, such apologies rarely come with any willingness to repair the damage that has been done. This is not true reconciliation, it’s really just a cheap counterfeit. Authors Michael Emerson and Christian Smith compare most attempts at reconciliation today to be the equivalent of “a big brother shoving his little brother to the ground, apologizing, and then shoving him to the ground again” (Divided by Faith, 58).

On matters of reconciliation, we should have the same attitude that we have toward our sanctification: whatever it takes. We ought to be willing to pursue true reconciliation – including repairing the damages of past and modern sins – by any godly means available to us as Christians.

Like our sanctification, if we really knew the extent of our relational sin, the extent to which we have not kept in step with the truth of the gospel, we would approach the subject of racial reconciliation in an entirely new way. We would readily acknowledge that we can’t claim the successes of our ancestors without claiming their sins. We would thank God for the statistics, the analysis, the explanations of the problem – no matter the source they came from. We would look for ways to affirm and fight for real solutions to repair the damages of past and present sin. We would lament how complicit and silent the evangelical church has been on racial injustice. We would resolve to repair the damages that have been done.

On matters of reconciliation, we should have the same attitude that we have toward our sanctification: whatever it takes. We ought to be willing to pursue true reconciliation – including repairing the damages of past and modern sins – by any godly means available to us as Christians.

Why do we keep talking about reconciliation?

Because we need to.
Because we continue to sin against God and against neighbor.
Because we have not walked in step with the truth of the gospel.
Because it is biblical to do so.
Because the ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us. This ministry is one which is

offered to the world through everyone who has been baptized into Christ’s body. It is not just for professionals or pastors or NGO leaders. Reconciliation is the ministry of high-school students, moms, retirees and prison inmates. Indeed, people who do not work as religious or service professionals are often in a better position to join the quiet revolution of God’s kingdom.  (Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, Reconciling All Things, 50)

Will you join the revolutionary work Christ is doing in his kingdom?

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Why Do We Keep Talking About Reconciliation?

by Ben Hein time to read: 14 min
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